L.A.Times — In Love with Chairman Mao


By: Warner Todd Huston

The L.A.Times published a story on the 13th that treated Chinese dictator, “Chairman” Mao, as a beloved and “iconic” figure but found no room in their story for any mention of the “great leader’s” human rights abuses, tortures or the many, murderous pogroms which took the lives of millions of his fellow citizens decade after decade as he ruled with an iron fist.

The story, sporting the title “Mao is Their Canvas”, was a puff piece investigating the secretive artists who painted the massive Mao portrait that hung at Tiananmen Square during and after the dictator’s lifetime. Certainly the lives of these “people’s artists” was somewhat interesting, but the disturbing thing was how gently the tyrant was treated in the story itself.

In fact, the whole article portrays the erstwhile Chairman in so rosy a picture that one would imagine that the portrait in question was that of Santa Clause as opposed to one of the most bloodthirsty despots in world history.

Throughout the story Chairman Mao is called all manner of benign and complimentary names. “Iconic”, “worshiped”, a “great leader”, it is revealed that he had a “robust spirit”, and in the opening paragraph his portrait is lovingly described as “he of the Mona Lisa gaze, flushed cheeks and trademark gray suit.”

He seems so benign in the story that I found myself wanting one of these wonderful works of art!

Even the forced labor of artists creating the Chairman’s images is treated as if the artist’s product was created for a thriving market instead of one manufactured by an oppressive government mandating that the image was to be hung in every house and public building.

“At the height of Mao’s power, his face was reproduced and hung in homes, schools, factories across the nation. Demand was so great for public murals of Mao, as well as of other socialist icons such as Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin, authorities asked Wang in 1975 to train a group of apprentices.”

“Demand was so great”? The Times almost seems to be asserting that his “iconic image” was being snapped up by willing customers instead of forcibly displayed by government fiat! There was “demand”, all right … at the point of a gun.

This story is also used to extol the virtues of the new and improved China, as well. And it is there that we finally see the word “propaganda” used in the piece. Naturally, it isn’t associated with communism, but capitalism!

“By the mid-1980s, China was taking a great leap from communist dogma and entering an era of capitalist-style economic reforms. Demand for Mao portraits went so out of fashion that the apprentices found themselves with nothing to do for months at a time.

To survive, they put their skills to use on a different kind of propaganda: advertising. Anything from movie posters to machine parts, stereo equipment to skin moisturizers. In the days before computers or graphic design capabilities, everything had to be drawn by hand. As new as they were to the task, the apprentices were perfect for the job.”

Interesting that we get paragraph after paragraph describing how the kindly Chairman’s portrait is hung all about the country of an admiring citizenry, yet only “advertising” is linked with the term “propaganda” in the Times’ account of the image!

The most galling thing about this story of happy artists, selflessly creating portraits of a beloved leader who generously allowed them to make a living with their brushes is that Mao is responsible for the murder of millions of artists (writers, teachers, musicians, and artists) during the so-called Cultural Revolution. Yet, not a word is brought up about all that messy history by the Times.

Mass murder and oppression is such a downer, ya know?

No, the Chairman is treated as a kindly uncle throughout the story, though the Communist Party does come in for a finger wag or two.

Nowhere is Mao called a dictator, no where is his oppression mentioned, no where are the many murders he is directly responsible for brought up. Words like tyrant, despot, torture, or oppression are never used in the piece.

To bad we cannot say the same for most L.A. Times stories written about President Bush!

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